Public Ph.D Defense of Linde Desmaele: Not Whether but How Europe Matters: A Neoclassical Realist Analysis of the Evolution of the Role of Europe in US Grand Strategy (2001-2020)

Friday 08 October 2021, 15:00 to 17:00


This study seeks to shed light on the factors that account for variation in the role of Europe in American grand strategy. It departs from the observation that in the past two decades, Europa has been downgraded or de-prioritized in the context of US grand strategy in order to focus more on the Middle East and East Asia, respectively. Indeed, in spite of the differences in US grand strategy from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump, one central feature has remained unchanged: US grand strategy is no longer Euro-centric. Observers of US strategy in Europe, however, have not yet updated their analytical tools to recognize this very fact. Many continue to look at Europe in isolation, somehow assuming that US strategy in Europe can be fully understood without taking into account extra-regional considerations. Yet, since grand strategy is about effectively distributing and applying resources toward a state's highest national objectives, one can reasonable expect US policy in and with Europe to derive from and serve US grand strategy priorities elsewhere. With that in mind, this study seeks to advance scholarly understanding of America's European strategy by looking at how the United States instrumentalizes its relationships across the Atlantic with a view to safeguarding its primary interests elsewhere. In other words, it looks at the role of Europe as a means (and not an end) of US grand strategy.

Building upon the logic of neoclassical realism, this study argues that strategic ideas are a crucial intervening variable in the transmission belt from structural pressures to grand strategy. External, structural factors surely explain that Europe’s downgrade in US grand strategy is the logical consequence of a series of geopolitical trends that have stripped Europeans of their position as protagonists of world politics. But claiming that Europe is no longer the priority still does not tell us anything about how the United States engages with countries across the Atlantic more specifically, be it bilaterally or through institutions like NATO and the European Union. The key contribution of this study, therefore, derives from its efforts to look at strategies ideas held within the US Foreign Policy Executive to account for the simple fact that states respond to structural pressures in different ways. Concretely, it proposes that variation in the role of Europe as a means depends on whether or not Europe is considered a promising cooperative partner for the United States.

The suggested neoclassical realist causal mechanism is investigated in a structured, focused comparison of three case studies of the role of Europe in US grand strategy under respectively the G.W. Bush (2001-2008), Obama (2009-2016) and Trump administration (2017-2020). The case studies reveal that Bush saw a role for Europe as a subordinate companion in his War on Terror in the Middle East. Obama, for his part, viewed Europe as a companion, but also as a strong partner that could help enable his pivot to Asia. Trump, finally, was interested in Europe as a weak and relatively inconsequential actor in Sino-American rivalry. These differences are important, for much of Europe is part of a West in continuous redefinition and remains linked to the United States through a network of institutions, and for some countries an alliance. Still today, the transatlantic relationship remains a key referent for how many countries in Europe think of their own role in international affairs.

The public defense of Linde Desmaele will take place in an hybrid format:


15:00 Welcome by Chair, Prof. Florian Trauner (Brussels School of Governance, VUB)

15:05 Ph.D presentation

15:25 Ph.D defense by Linde Desmaele

Jury questions from:

  • Prof. Jennifer Sterling-Folker (University of Connecticut)
  • Prof. Barry Posen (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
  • Prof. Ramon Parcheco Pardo (Brussels School of Governance, VUB)
  • Prof. Alexander Mattelaer (Brussels School of Governance, VUB)
  • Prof. Olesya Tkacheva (Brussels School of Governance, VUB)

16:20 Q&A with audience

16:30 Deliberation

16:35 Conferment of degree

16:40: Speech by Promotor Luis Simon (Brussels School of Governance, VUB)

16:55 Speech by Linde Desmaele

17:00 Closing, followed by a reception at Bar Pilar (on the VUB Campus).